At `exclusive' club, Ehrlich goes inexplicably colorblind

July 05, 2005|By MICHAEL OLESKER

FROM Groucho Marx, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. could learn half a lesson. Years ago, Groucho told a story about his daughter, who was not allowed into a swimming club because she was Jewish. Groucho sent a letter of complaint to the club.

"My daughter's only half-Jewish," he wrote. "Could she just go in the water up to her waist?"

Groucho made a joke of it because he was a comic. Sometimes laughter's more powerful than rage. But it's half a century later, and we're all supposed to know better now than to isolate people by religion or race or anything similarly hurtful.

Week before last, Ehrlich held a golfing fund-raiser at the Elkridge Club, out there on North Charles Street by the Baltimore city-county line. Pay a thousand bucks, and get to schmooze obsequiously with the governor of Maryland.

But don't expect to hang out with Michael Steele in that same setting, due to the conditions of birth of the lieutenant governor of Maryland. The Elkridge Club is generally referred to as "exclusive." This is intended to indicate the wealth and social connections of its members. But here it means not just blue blood, but a certain color of skin.

As several Elkridge members and former officers confirmed to The Sun last week, there has not been a black person admitted to membership in the club in its entire 127-year history, although the club has been magnanimous enough to let minorities on occasion dine or play golf there.

Like Groucho's daughter halfway into the pool, maybe they only played the first nine holes.

It is the year 2005, and there are still places in America distinguishing people by skin color, and one of them is the Elkridge Club, where Ehrlich raises $100,000 in one day by holding his fund-raiser there.

By state law, clubs must have inclusionary policies (not barring women, blacks, or other minority groups from joining), and the clubs must assure this by disclosing their membership rolls to the state, to get a property tax break on their highly valuable land. In 1977, the Elkridge Club decided to forfeit that break rather than turn over its membership list -- and it has stuck by that decision.

Asked by a Sun reporter about holding his gubernatorial fund-raiser at such a club, Governor Ehrlich's response was: "I'm not going to answer this question," because it was "hypothetical." When it was confirmed that the club has never had any black members, and Ehrlich spokesman Henry Fawell was asked for a response, Fawell said, "It is inappropriate for government employees to comment on political fund-raisers."

Oh, please.

What would it take for the governor of Maryland to say, "I wouldn't want to hang out at any club that would exclude somebody like Michael Steele"?

Is that so hard to say?

This is a governor who has gained much political capital -- and rightly so -- by choosing Maryland's first African-American running mate. He has also been accused (by this newspaper, among others) of choosing him not because Steele had a particularly inspiring personal history but for the sheer symbolic strength of his skin color.

Now is the chance for Ehrlich to show otherwise, to say that Steele is more than a symbol, to say that his selection really does stand for a new day of understanding and mutual respect, that he really is a spiritual brother as well as a political partner. And that such a person (or any person) should not be subjected to this kind of historical, isolation by any organization, any more than Jews or Italians, or Greeks or Salvadorans, or any other minority might be kept out for reason of ethnicity.

This is the governor who's still trying to explain his remark on the radio that multiculturalism is "crap" and "bunk." But "multiculturalism" is just a word. Michael Steele is supposed to be Ehrlich's friend -- as well as the second-ranking member of state government. A year ago, when he was asked about Ehrlich's "multiculturalism" outburst, Steele said, "I'm comfortable with my governor."

How comfortable is he with a country club that hasn't allowed any black people to be members, and a governor who can't seem to understand that we don't like to stigmatize people by background in multicultural America?

The response to all of this has been predictable. Democrats have accused Ehrlich of insensitivity. Blacks have done the same. Which leaves us asking: Why? Why doesn't Ehrlich simply say, "It's a mistake for the leader of the Free State to hold any kind of function at a club that isolates people by background. I didn't realize its history. It wouldn't have happened if I had."

Why can't he say that? Is it because this governor, when backed to a wall, instinctively goes on the attack? Is it because he understands there are still racial divisions in this country and, since there are more white voters than black, that this is an issue that works for him mathematically, if not morally?

Years ago, asked to join a country club, Groucho Marx famously joked, "I don't care to belong to any club that will accept me as a member."

Robert L. Ehrlich should say, "I can't respect any club that won't accept Michael Steele as a member."

Is that so hard to say?

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